False rumor reignites row over Egypt’s mixed-gender classes

The Egyptian government once again has managed to quash a recurring false claim that men and women will be banned from attending university classes together.

al-monitor People attend the spring 2018 Graduate Commencement at The American University in Cairo, Egypt, in a picture uploaded July 11, 2018.  Photo by Facebook/aucegypt.

Aug 29, 2018

CAIRO — Prior to the scheduled Sept. 22 start of the new academic year in Egypt, the controversy over mixed-gender universities has resurfaced.

Sameh Abdel Hamid, a prominent Salafist preacher in Egypt, criticized in an Aug. 17 statement the mixed-gender system in Egypt's public universities. He called on the government to segregate male and female students, claiming mixed educational facilities lead to "customary marriages" and increased harassment of women. In a customary marriage — known as nikah 'urfi — the contract is not officially registered with the state and no witnesses are required.

The Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education had issued an Aug. 12 statement denying all rumors spreading on social networking sites about a government decision to separate male and female students in Egyptian universities. The rumors said female students would be allowed to attend classes on three specific days and male students would get three different days.

Minister of Higher Education Khalid Abdul Ghaffar denied the rumors as "very funny” in an interview during the This Morning TV show Aug. 13. He added, “Whoever hears such rumors would think we're still living in the dark ages.”

During a military academy ceremony in July, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Egypt’s government had found some 21,000 posts about false rumors over a period of three months. “Ahead of the academic year, some entities just want to spread chaos to confuse the public opinion,” he said.

The government's statement eventually managed to tame the wave of mockery and sharp criticism by young Egyptian social media activists expressing their resentment of the supposed decision attributed to the government.

Shadi Mohammed Abdul Rahman, the president of the Student Union at Cairo University, said the rumor angered male and female students who voiced their anger through various university groups. Such a decision would have taken Egypt "back to the age of darkness,” he told Al-Monitor.

“The quick denial by the Ministry of Higher Education has contained their anger,” he said, rejecting Salafi accusations that mixed-gender universities are behind the increase in customary marriage and harassment of women in Egypt. Statistics from 2016 showed that 99% of Egyptian women were subject to sexual harassment.

“These phenomena are related to the culture of a society and aren't limited to universities,” Abdul Rahman argued. “Egyptian university students are mature and rational enough to control their behavior. They aren't children.”

Under customary marriages, men bear no marital responsibilities. Young people seem to resort to such marriage contracts to avoid paying the cost of a regular marriage, and married men find them practical for secret second marriages, also without incurring any costs. This type of marriage is also spreading among women who don't want to be single. Most cases of customary marriage begin and end in secrecy.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) in Egypt showed detailed results from its 2018 annual statistical report on customary marriage. It noted a record 149,322 cases in 2017, an increase of 16% over 2016.

The figures angered many parliament members. On Aug. 13, parliament member Amna Nosseir announced she is working on a draft law to punish men and women married under a customary contract by imprisonment for a year. She said she will submit the draft law with the beginning of the fourth parliamentary session in October.

In a phone conversation with Al-Monitor, Abdel Hamid, the Salafist preacher, insisted that mixed university classes are the main reason for the rise in customary marriages in Egypt: "Official statistics don't recognize that the largest percentage of customary marriages are among university students. But this is the truth.”

Abdel Hamid added, “In mixed universities, male and female students at the age of adolescence and early youth would get distracted.” He pointed to Al-Azhar’s single-gender schools and universities as “a successful experiment.” According to him, there are also no complaints of harassment at Al-Azhar.

"I dare you to find one case of customary marriage at Al-Azhar University," he said. With mixed-gender colleges, on the other hand, "The Salafist group receives many complaints and inquiries from mothers worried about their girls being seduced by their male fellow students into customary marriage.”

He continued, “There are many places for students to hang out under the trees on university campuses, which turned into dating spots for young couples.” He added, "Mixed working places are another cause of evil but to a lesser extent, since men and women at the working age are more rational and can better control their actions.”

Sheikh Ahmed Karima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence and Islamic Sharia at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor, “Customary marriage is a widespread phenomenon in Egyptian society, not just in universities. It is widely common among married men, [the] divorced, and widows and widowers.”

He noted that Islamic law doesn't prohibit gender mixing in public spaces.

“Men and women perform congregational prayers at mosques. Men and women mix freely during the performance of Islamic rituals of hajj and umrah,” he said.

He also recalled women’s participation alongside men in the Great Battle of Badr and Uhud Battle, where women gave water to fighters and treated the wounded. He further noted that during the Prophet's era, men and women mixed in markets, with no separation.

Karima explained that the tradition of separating men from women among Muslims emerged with the Wahhabi movement. “Wahhabis brought their traditions into their own interpretation of Islamic religion in the 18th century.”

Al-Monitor also spoke to Shukri al-Jundi, the undersecretary of parliament's Religious Committee. He said Egyptian universities have provided mixed-gender education since their establishment as part of the secular education system. “Al-Azhar University, which provides a faith-inspired education system study, is based on gender segregation between the students. Egyptians can make a choice. Freedom of belief is guaranteed by the constitution.”

Although the Egyptian Dar Al-Ifta — Egypt's official religious institution tasked with drafting edicts — issued a fatwa allowing gender mixing at schools and universities, Salafist sheiks in Egypt keep issuing special fatwas just ahead of the start of each academic year prohibiting mixed-gender education and shaming girls studying at mixed colleges as “sinners.”

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